Power Trip

I often pretend I’m besotted with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in “The Avengers”, but it’s just an affectation really. I just like the retro-ness of the programmes.

Rigg’s replacement, Linda Thorson as Tara King, doesn’t have the same dedicated cult following, but I think she did a great job. Her character was slightly sabotaged by the writers, who made her a naive ex-trainee who is infatuated with John Steed. That left no scope for the ambiguous kind of relationship which Peel and Steed had shown, but as the series developed, Tara King came to be as independent as resourceful and Emma Peel. And, to use the modern terminology, just as “kick-ass”.

The story goes that producer John Bryce considered 200 actresses to find a replacement for Diana Rigg, and in a completely fair and unbiased process, selected his current girlfriend, Linda Thorson. He then started work on filming three new episodes. Work fell behind schedule, and ABC were unsatisfied with the shows Bryce had made. He was “let go” and Clemens and Fennell, executive producers of the Emma Peel episodes, were brought back to start again.

Under pressure to generate the amount of material which had been sold to the Americans, Clemens and Fennell didn’t discard Bryce’s rejected episodes, they cut and diced them and shot additional footage, and tried to cobble up three acceptable shows. None was very good, but the absolute turkey of the three is the car crash which is “Homicide and Old Lace”, a re-hash of Bryce’s lost “The Great Great Britain Crime”.

In the episodes with Bryce’s material, you can get an idea of where he was going wrong (mainly by being very, very dull) but you also get an uncomfortable insight into his relationship with Linda Thorson. For one thing, she was told to lose weight: charming. But he also decided that she’d be better off blonde. There’s a story that an attempt to bleach her hair ruined it, leading to the use of a wig instead.
Tara King
True or not, in all three Bryce attempts, Linda Thorson wears an unconvincing blonde wig, as you can see in the re-used footage. But having authority over his partner’s appearance, Bryce must have sleazily pushed it a little bit further along the fetish route. In “The Great Great Britain Crime” Tara King wears black rubber hold-ups (and matching gloves).

In the illustration here, it’s all action with machine guns, and at least Tara, initially unarmed, ends up with both guns and leaves two dead villains.




Is there no end to the degradation of the Trivago woman?

The first time I saw her, I thought she was remarkably pretty, but felt that it was a pity that she was so badly green-screened onto an image of a hotel room. I also wondered if it was effective advertising. I don’t think people generally like to be lectured at.

Incidentally, the company has made many country-specific versions of the advertising. I’ve seen the German and Italian ones, both presented by men. Perhaps they thought that Germans and Italians would especially resent being lectured at by a woman. Although the Germans have had a lot of experience of it. I haven’t seen the American version — also male — but I hear that it’s widely loathed.

Anyway, for the UK one they’ve had her do several versions of basically the same ad, but dressed differently. I can’t say for sure, but I’ll be they don’t make the male actors do that. Then there was one where there was a mosaic of her repeating the ad in about 30 different costumes.

But now there’s one where they’ve dressed her like Shirley Temple and made her tap dance. A grown woman.

(Incidentally, I’ve tried their website and never found a better hotel deal than on the main booking ones.)

The Wheeled Avenger

Steed's BentleyJohn Steed is forever linked to his vintage Bentleys and Rolls Royces, at least in the classic period of The Avengers. In one very early episode he drove a Triumph Herald, and at the end, in the New Avengers, he had a number of contemporary cars; that is, late 1970s ones. But let’s not think about that.

Emma Peel drove a Lotus Elan, the quintessential small, British sports car. Or to be more Emma's Elanaccurate, two Elans, the first white; and the second grey in the black-and-white episodes and light blue in the later colour ones. Apparently, Diana Rigg had to learn to drive for the part, but she always seems very competent, although some chase sequences are obviously speeded up.

When Diana Rigg left the show, new producer John Bryce made three new programmes with Tara King, conveniently played by his girlfriend, Linda Thorson. The programmes were rejected by the company and never shown, although some footage was salvaged to make a later episode. In that one, Tara drives a Lotus Elan +2, which was a derivative of the original Elan as driven by Emma Peel, but stretched to fit in two useless rear seats and remodelled (uglified) at the front.
In that episode, Steed’s elegant vintage vehicles were inexplicably replaced by a modern AC 428. That car was built on a modified AC Cobra chassis, with the Cobra’s huge 7-litre Ford engine, and an angular GT body, designed and built by Frua in Italy. Only a few dozen were ever made. It must have been a monster: an American muscle car built in Britain and Italy.
Tara's AC
When John Bryce was sacked and the original producers called back to restore order, they shot a hand-over episode with both Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson. In this one, Emma Peel didn’t drive, but Tara King got the AC, and sanity was restored by giving Steed back his 1926 Bentley.

But part way through the series, the AC was retired (or sold perhaps, it was probably very valuable) and Tara got a Lotus Europa; I think it must have been the ugliest Lotus ever made. I particularly dislike the ‘solid’ rear of the cabin: makes it look like a van.

Tara in the Lotus Europa

If I could choose any Avengers vehicle, I’d be tempted by the big AC 428, but I think I’d pick the Lotus Elan. Preferably with Emma Peel in it.

Space is Deep

When I first bought my satellite dish over seven years ago, it was a motorized system. You see, television satellites form a ring around the Earth, and the dish must point to the right satellite to receive its broadcasts.

I can’t quite get my head around the excact geometry of it, but my house is attached to the Earth’s surface at a latitude of 53.549 degrees. The satellites are in a ring over the equator, which is zero degrees, while the Earth’s axis of spin is 90.

Anyway, I think how it works out is that the motor has to be aligned at (90 – 53.549) to the horizontal, and then by rotating left or right, it can pick out a satellite.

Well, I got it to work. The wall of the house points a bit West of South, and I could use the motor to point the dish across an arc of satellites. I thought that the Western end might get me some North or South American channels, but that end seemed to be equitorial Africa. In fact, the satellites which serve a particular region don’t sit directly above them. For example, the UK’s Sky and Freesat come from a group of satellites directly overhead 28 degrees East, which is somewhere in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But I got the channels I wanted. Freesat for British television, and turning a bit East, Hotbird for Italian, both the state broadcaster RAI and the Berlusconi empire on Mediaset. Going further East, I could get all the way to Khazakstan. Oh, and there were loads of middle-Eastern channels in there, most of them about Allah.

After a year or two though, I became dissatisfied. It took about twenty seconds to turn from UK to Italy, which is a long time in TV. And I hardly ever watched Khazakh television. I took the motor on the dish out of circuit, and put a multiple-LNB bracket on instead.

The LNB is essentially the “receiver” facing a satellite dish. In theory, the dish focusses the beam to one point, which is where you place your LNB, but in reality, it’s not that simple. The beam from a satellite that’s a bit to the left gets focussed, sloppily, more-or-less, to a spot on the right, and vice-versa. If the signal is stong enough or the dish large enough, you can get working television off more than one LNB.

The standard switch for multiple LNBs can handle four. I put up three. One for Freesat, which is a strong signal over the British Isles, and would work even off-centre. About centre, I pointed another at Astra, which has a load of German-language channels (I understand a bit of German) and a few French (my French is a little better than my German). Although the majority of French television seems to be encrypted on the proprietary Canal Plus system, and I can’t receive it. A little bit East, one LNB got Hotbird, with the Italian channels I wanted.

Unfortunately (maybe), after a couple of years, the Italian Mediaset channels on Hotbird went encrypted onto the Tivusat system. If you live in Italy, and have a tax code, you can get a free decoder card. Outside Italy, there are ways and means, but they all cost money. I shrugged and carried on.

Then, some months ago, I noticed that there is lots of Italian television on a different satellite, one that is physically above the British Isles at 5 degrees West, but points East to Italy. There is a host of regional RAI stations, and even the Mediaset channels are broadcast unencrypted. But my dish has to be pointing the other direction to see Freesat. (In fact, the Freesat sat is overhead Italy and the Eutelsat one is above the UK. What’s going on?)
There was a slight chance that a fourth LNB could receieve Eutelsat 5 if stuck far enough off centre. They’re only a fiver, so I bought one. And… it didn’t work. After a couple of hours up the ladder (I don’t like heights) I couldn’t get anything, and gave up. I slid the LNB along the bracket until I got a strong signal from an other satellite, any satellite.

This turned out to be Eurobird 9A, with about fifty free television channels on it. Hungarian and Swiss in the majority, but also some Chinese. The People’s Republic of China broadcasts across the world in different languages. I have English, French, Russian and Arabic.

As it happens, there’s an Italian drama tonight on Hungarian television, dubbed into Hungarian, and I don’t understand a word. I can’t even make anything of the programme info. There’s a priest in it but he’s not Don Matteo. Oh wait, I searched on-line for the title — “Rózsák Harca” — and it says “Tuscan Passion”. IMDB reveals: “A story of murder, conspiracy and secrets but above all about a great love story; Tuscan Passion tells the story of an impossible love between Aurora Taviani and Alessandro Monforte. Both belong to enemy families and both are divided by a history of blood and mystery. ”

So just another day in Tuscany. It went out on Mediaset in Italy, and I don’t see that any more.

Groovy Baby

The past seems less complicated than today. I think that’s part of the appeal of “period” dramas. Or just outright old ones.

A couple of years ago, the low-budget television channel True Entertainment acquired the rights to the sixties television series The Avengers, and being low-budget, they’ve been broadcasting all the episodes in a constant cycle ever since.

This is not the whole of The Avengers: it’s the middle set, starting from the first with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, up to the last one with Linda Thorson as Tara King. Previously, John Steed’s partner had been Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, and then, seven years after Tara, Steed re-appeared in The New Avengers, with Gareth Hunt as action man Mike Gambit, and Joanna Lumley as action woman Purdy. It wasn’t absolutely fabulous.

I’ve now seen all the Emma and Tara episodes several times, which is probably sufficient exposure to the sixties for the present. It’s a strange sixties though: underpopulated and lacking in swinging. A comic book caricature of the sixties, let’s say.

steed-emmaI do like Emma Peel. Everyone agrees that Diana Rigg is one of the acting greats of her generation, and whether she’s crushing a criminal, infiltrating and impersonating or titrating a test tube, she plays the part with a vivid intelligence and humour. Her eventual replacement, Linda Thorson, is less highly-regarded, but it’s hardly fair to criticize her for not being Diana Rigg. Nobody is; except Diana Rigg.

After the last Emma Peel episode, the television company behind it, ABC, assumed that no further programmes would be made. Cast and crew were “let go”. However, it emerged that the was American money forthcoming for a new series, leading ABC to revive The Avengers. Patrick Macnee was willing to return as John Steed, but Diana Rigg wasn’t interested in coming back, and nor were producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell.

The company appointed a new producer, John Bryce, and began extensive auditions (some say 200 were tried out) for a new female partner for Steed. By an incredible coincidence, the actress who got the job was Bryce’s girlfriend, Linda Thorson. The story goes that Bryce required her to go blonde for the part, but the process went badly wrong, requiring Thorson to wear wigs to cover up the damage for the first six months of filming. How creepy is that? “Now I’m your boss, I can tell you to change your hair colour.”

Bryce shot three episodes before being sacked. Clemens and Fennell were brought back to clean up the mess. (Only one of Bryce’s productions was broadcast, and even that only after Clemens and Fennell had extensively reworked it.)

steed-taraLinda Thorson stayed. I’ve always felt that her character of Tara King was hobbled by the writers at the start, rather than by any problem with Thorson’s acting abilities. Whereas Emma Peel had an independent backstory (pulled out of chemistry grad school to run her late father’s business empire, sold it for a fortune, married a test pilot) Tara King was introduced as a naive trainee secret agent, assigned to work for Steed as her first job after qualifying. Tara was supposedly besotted with Steed, in contrast to the ambiguous relationship between Steed and Peel, leaving less room for emotional complexity in the scenes. (I know, “emotional complexity”. Talking about The Avengers.)

It was only in the later Tara King episodes that the character developed Peel-like independence, but overall I still think that Thorson did a perfectly good job. I like her. After about thirty episodes, the money ran out again, meaning the end of the old Avengers.

The Long And The Short Of It

“Aspect ratio” is a common enough term, I think, even if a little technical. It’s simply the ratio of the width of something to its height. For me, that’s about 1:3.4 because I’m a tall, thin shape like most humans.

The early movie industry, back in the silent era, used a 35mm film with a ratio of 4:3 which also is supposed to reflect a person’s central field of vision. Television inherited 4:3 and used that format up until relatively recent times, but movie-makers decided to offer something which television couldn’t: widescreen.

The first wide movie standard was CinemaScope from 1953. It was 8:3 or twice as wide as television. The film industry scales the numbers so that the height figure is 1, making CinemaScope 2.66:1 in their terms. Common commercial formats today are 1.85:1 and 2.40:1. Television, meanwhile, has adopted 16:9 or what the movie industry would call 1.78:1.

Now that I’ve introduced aspect ratio, I’ll get to the point, which is that some people don’t get it. A common situation is that “old” 4:3 television is shown on a “new” 16:9 set, and there are a few options. In fact, my own set has several. Probably the best in most cases is simply to place the 4:3 image in the middle of the screen, with black bars down each side. You’re not using some of the set’s expensive pixels, but at least you can see the full original image.

Because an alternate option is to spread the image across the whole width and crop off the top and bottom. Since 4:3 is the same as 16:12 (multiply by 4) on 16:9 you only see 9/12 or 3/4 of the vertical — rarely what you want. One freaky-looking alternative on my television set is to fill the whole screen with an image which is stretched more the further horizontally you get from the centre. I don’t really use that.

But those people who don’t get it (and I know they exist, in fact I’m related to some of them) are quite happy to watch a 4:3 programme simply stretched across the wider, 16:9 screen. It makes everything look short and squat, and basically just wrong. Well, it does to me, instantly. In fact, it distresses me and I can’t watch it.

One place you come across the people blind to aspect ratio is on YouTube. Many a time I’ve looked for a video of one of my favourite bands, only to find that some idiot has converted it or uploaded it wrong. And does anyone add a comment to say that it’s incorrect, or even that the band concerned seems to have put on a lot of weight? Not ever.

So I went to YouTube to get you examples of what I’m talking about. The first “old” television show I thought of which would likely be uploaded was the BBC’s music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test. Sure enough, a proportion (sorry) of the clips featured short, fat musicians in a low-ceiling studio.

For example, here are squat Lynyrd Skynyrd live on stage. You see that logo on the wall at the right? It’s supposed to be circular.
Squat Lynyrd Skynyrd

And here are Gary Moore and Phil Lynott under the same, egg-shaped logo. Hardly looking their best.
Gary Moore and friends

But finally, here’s how it should be done. Bob Marley (no, his hair is supposed to look like that) nicely framed and in the correct proportions.
Bob Marley

If you can’t instantly see that the first two are wrong and the last one right, then you have the aspect ratio disability. I’m not sure if there’s a cure.

Cops and Robbers

I rarely watch film or television drama. It’s not that I have a low opinion of it: there are many famous and successful shows that I’m sure must deserve their reputation. But like a relationship that doesn’t work, it’s a case of “it’s not them; it’s me”. Mainly, I just can’t be bothered to make the emotional investment to sit down and engage, which I suppose suggests that the reward I get is insufficient to justify the effort.

That may well be related to my particular type of mind. I saw on a science programme a bit about Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories of “systemizing” versus “empathizing” and, curious, found an internet questionnaire which claimed to place you on his spectrum. I scored 61 (high) for “systemizing” and 33 (low) for “empathizing”. The gloss for those marks was, quote: “you have an above average ability for analysing and exploring a system” and “you have a lower than average ability for understanding how other people feel and responding appropriately”.

So maybe the screen fiction I would like would be less about feelings and relationships and more about logic and systems? Say, detective dramas. Wow! Spooky! I do like detective dramas. Maybe there’s something in Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories. (That’s shows with deduction, logic and analysis; not violence, shooting and car chases. That doesn’t impress me much.)

All of which goes to explain why I picked detective fiction on television to try to improve my Italian language skills. Of the two main series I watched, one, Commissario Montalbano, has been shown on the BBC with English subtitles, while the other, Don Matteo, hasn’t been shown to English-speaking audiences, as far as I know.

don matteoThe latter is a fairly lightweight piece of puff with a strong comedy undercurrent. It stars Terence Hill, formerly a cowboy in spaghetti westerns, such as My Name Is Trinity. He’s getting on a bit now, but still has the striking blue eyes and rugged good looks. He plays a priest, Don Matteo, retired from a rough and dangerous missionary life to a parish in the city of Gubbio in Umbria. Part of the attraction for me was that I’ve been to Gubbio a couple of times, and even visited Don Matteo’s church.

The main plot is almost always formulaic, with Don Matteo one step ahead of the local Carabinieri and usually being able to confront the criminal and persuade him or her to confess just as the blue flashing lights arrive. The comic sub-plots are more varied, but tend to centre on the actions of either the Carabinieri sergeant or Don Matteo’s housekeeper, both played by well-known Italian comedy actors.

My Italian is good enough to grasp almost all of an average episode of Don Matteo, including the jokes, although I sometimes need to note down individual words or phrases so that I can look them up later. That’s why I now know the Italian for slut, asshole and liar. But there is a catch. In order to pick up all the dialogue, I have to have the subtitles for the deaf on the screen. I can read Italian far better than I can hear it.

The same applies when I watch Commissario Montalbano in the Italian version, rather than the BBC’s English-subtitled one. The programme is set in Sicily, but I’m pretty sure that the Sicilian dialect is toned way down in it. Even so, the Italian subtitles are more standard than the real dialogue, which means that when the text doesn’t match the words I get a little bit of the flavour of how Sicilian is different.

commissario montalbanoUnlike Don Matteo in the real town of Gubbio, the show follows the original novels on which it’s based in having the fictional town of “Vigàta” as its setting. Montalbano is “Commissario” or Chief of Police in Vigàta. (For some reason, the BBC decided to demote Montalbano to mere Inspector, which to me makes the relative ranks in the police station inconsistent and confusing.)

In the television version, Vigàta is represented by the real town of Ragusa (even though the author really had Porto Empedocle in mind) while Montalbano’s beachfront house is in Punta Secca, which stands in for the fictional “Marinella”. While I haven’t yet been to Sicily, I have had a browse on Google’s Street View and found, not only the house, but Montalbano’s favourite seafood restaurant. (In fact, they’re less than 100m apart, rather than the short drive that the programmes would have you believe.)

The plots in Montalbano are mainly based on those from the novels by Camilleri, who is a very highly-respected author in Italy. As you might expect, then, they are somewhat more sophisticated than the comedy melodrama of Don Matteo. But still, the programmes are not without humour, although the slapstick antics of Constable Catarella don’t amuse me much, in spite of them being popular in Italy.

On a few occasions I’ve watched the Italian version and then the English-subtitled version immediately after, just to make sure that there was nothing I had missed, or had misunderstood, and I’ve been satisfied with my abilities to understand. But the crunch will come when I try one I haven’t previously seen and turn the Italian subtitles off. Buona fortuna!